Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 28, 2022
The DragonBear: Putin's Choices This article is part of the series — Raisina Files 2022.
On 24 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to launch an all-out war against Ukraine from various directions.<1> This military reinvasion followed Russia's annexation of Crimea<2> and its direct support for separatist activities in eastern Ukraine<3> and marked a new chapter in Moscow's geopolitical approach. Even more remarkable was China's response and its overt diplomatic, financial, and economic support for Russia. Are the contours of a new geopolitical formation—which I called the "DragonBear"<4> in 2015—characterised by deepening relations between the two countries in key strategic areas, now increasingly visible? If so, what are Putin's geopolitical choices? Against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the Great Power rivalry between the United States (US) and China, Russia is striving to become an indispensable power, without which neither the US nor China would be able to win the system competition against each other in the future. To achieve this, Moscow seeks to build and consolidate its "sphere of influence" based on a union between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, which would help Moscow become a major player with significant power projection in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Eurasia.<5> If President Putin manages to subjugate Ukraine, this would fulfil Russia's geopolitical ambitions to revive a post-imperial state as a great power with a significantly improved position in global politics. In this regard, Russia's geostrategic approach pursues a vertical (north-south) extension of its geopolitical and geoeconomic interests, encompassing the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea; ning its "near abroad" in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus; and reaching into Eurasia, the Middle East, and North Africa.<6> The western flank of Russia, which is the eastern flank for NATO's European members, remains one of the most important geostrategic flashpoints because of the concentration of Russia's population in this area. Russia is slowly but surely shifting its centre of gravity from an interdependence with Western Europe to Eurasia, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan), and even the Indo-Pacific region. For this reason, the Russian president is eager to close the chapter on the “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe by reshaping the European security architecture once and for all, to turn his attention to the above-mentioned geopolitical and geoeconomic areas in the long run. It is plausible that Russia needs a powerful ally after the precarious isolation by the West, while China seeks a loyal partner with regional power projection to bolster its global influence. In this context, Russia has seized the opportunity to successively build a new modus vivendi of systemic coordination with China in relevant key areas of shared geopolitical and geoeconomic interests. Since 2014, Sino-Russian relations have continued to deepen under sustained US pressure and ongoing Western sanctions.

What is the “DragonBear”?

The "DragonBear" is neither an alliance or an entente nor a “marriage of convenience”, but a temporary asymmetrical relationship, in which China predominantly sets the tone but remains dependent on Russia in many ways. While China enjoys trade, economic, and financial dominance, Russia continues to rely on defence and—in many respects—diplomatic superiority through its regional power projection and successful military operations around the globe. The unequal collaboration is cemented by the shared geopolitical interest in creating a credible counterweight to US influence in international affairs based on a systemic coordination of a wide range of policies and actions. Moreover, the “DragonBear” is intensifying due to the common goal of responding collectively to major turbulences in the global economy, finance, and trade; but both countries keep in mind the rapidly changing strategic alliances and partnerships amidst the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). They assume that the global order is undergoing a systemic transformation, the outcome of which is unpredictable, but likely with a variety of unforeseen implications for Russian and Chinese interests. Thus, the “DragonBear” is not a classic alliance according to Western ideas and concepts. Rather, China and Russia have tactically entered into a rapprochement to manage the uncertain transitional phase of the bifurcation without the need to announce a strategic alliance, let alone a military one. China is evidently the stronger partner economically and financially, but it treats Russia as an equal rather than a subordinate counterpart. Mutual respect plays an exceedingly important role in this bilateral relationship, in which the two presidents have met 38 times. The relationship reached its culmination during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on 4 February 2022 in Beijing when the two leaders signed a “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development.”<7> Russia has been China's top arms supplier for decades. Key building blocks of Russian-Chinese cooperation include the delivery of S-400 air defence systems and Su-35 fighter jets to improve Beijing's ability to attack US warships.<8> Since 2019, Russia and China have been jointly developing China's missile defence early warning system.<9> In addition, Moscow is supporting Beijing's military with technologies about which Russian President Putin has declined to provide further details. Russian scientists are working in Chinese technology and telecommunications companies such as Huawei. China's advanced computer chips are another way for Russia to acquire military technologies, circumventing Western sanctions. Other opportunities for cooperation, such as the joint development of satellites and the construction of a future lunar station, have also been explored. Cooperation in the area of space or the new technologies of the 4IR are particularly problematic from the perspective of Western countries due to the growing great power competition in space.<10> China and Russia have also settled their long-standing territorial disputes and amicably demilitarised their common border. Therefore, neither territorial claims nor border disputes should affect bilateral relations in the long term. Although both are involved in territorial disputes with third countries, they avoid direct confrontation with each other. In the energy sector, their interests are complementary, as Russia is the world's largest combined supplier of oil and gas, while China remains the largest energy consumer. In the future, an energy dependency similar to that between Russia and Europe could emerge, as Moscow increasingly supplies China with oil and gas through various pipelines. On the other hand, energy cooperation improves Russia profile in the Asian markets and allows it to diversify its own energy portfolio away from Europe.

Beijing needs Russia for power projection in Eurasia

The main common denominator is not only the goal of demonstrating a credible counterweight to US global power. It is also about creating a significant Eurasian connectivity in response to US maritime dominance in the Indo-Pacific region, ensuring security of supply in the event of future sea lane blockages.<11> Russia and China openly share the objective of reducing US and European influence in Eurasia. Moscow's military operation with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to efficiently stabilise the situation in Kazakhstan<12>, following violent protests in January this year, has improved its regional position vis-à-vis the US and China. Russia helped Kazakh President Tokayev stay in power and gained additional political influence in the country, which has a significant amount of raw materials and plays an important role in China's Silk Road projects.<13> Kazakhstan is also a member of the two main regional organisations of Russia and China (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). Thus, Russia can be rented as a security provider and Russian president Putin has raised the price of Russia's future engagement at the invitation of authoritarian regimes that want to remain in power. After his military support for Syrian President Assad and Belarusian President Lukashenko, Kazakh President Tokayev is now the next leader to safeguard Russian interests on the ground and beyond. Indeed, Moscow benefits from China's terrestrial expansion that connects Asia and Europe across the Eurasian landmass. The Chinese Silk Road embodies a horizontal geopolitical extension that stretches from the least developed parts of China to Europe, diverting China's attention from Russia's Far East. The Belt and Road Initiative is accentuating the need for Russia's role in filling geopolitical gaps in those geographic points of intersection. China benefits from Russia's projection of power in the "near abroad" and Eurasia by securing valuable access to raw materials and offering economic and financial incentives to these countries once the situation there is stabilised. Moscow is emerging as a global security provider that could act on behalf of China's geoeconomic interests in Eurasia and other parts of the world. The "DragonBear" may have discovered a successful formula of task sharing (Russia is the security provider, China is the financial and economic provider) that can be applied in other parts of the world. The modus vivendi of coordination extends beyond Eurasia to South Asia. Moscow is helping Beijing stabilise Afghanistan and prevent spillover effects of terrorist activities in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.<14> Many great powers have repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to make Afghanistan a stage for their geopolitical ambitions. The US is the latest superpower to suffer a catastrophic defeat in the country after two decades of unsuccessful occupation and state-building. China’s focus is on terrestrial connectivity (transport, trade, and energy) in conjunction with Central Asian countries as well as Pakistan and Iran. Building bridges between them is beneficial to Russian interests. Potential points of conflict between Russia and China arise from their geographic prioritisation and overlapping geopolitical interests. Russian fears of growing Chinese influence in Central Asia, the Far East, and other traditional spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space have become entrenched. However, the general hypothesis that China and Russia currently face competing interests in Central Asia, Africa, India, and the Arctic—that inhibit the modus vivendi of mutual coordination in the long term—cannot be confirmed at this time.

The “DragonBear” in the aftermath of Russia’s war on Ukraine

China and Russia may have coordinated the timing of Moscow’s launch of the reinvasion of Ukraine to take place after the Olympics.<15> Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met on 4 February in a long-awaited effort to diplomatically boost their countries’ international standing, leading to the announcement of the 5,000-word joint statement.<16> At the bilateral summit, the two presidents declared that their “friendship has no limits”.<17> The document covers broad sections of the bilateral, regional and international relationship between Beijing and Moscow. The Joint Declaration marks a turning point in the bilateral relations. Vladimir Putin would never have launched such a large-scale war against Ukraine if he had not relied on China’s financial, economic, and diplomatic support. Moreover, China was apparently surprised by the Russian military’s difficulties in the combat zones: The Chinese president was “unsettled” by the "reputational damage" that could result from the strong support for Russia, as well as the global economic consequences in light of Russian countersanctions at a time when Beijing is seeking to boost its own economic growth.<18> China’s support for Russia’s economy following the Western sanctions has many dimensions, stemming from mutual interests in commodity trade<19> as well as the above-mentioned strategic domains. Beijing’s role is critical for Russia’s economy in the midst of a threatening default scenario. China is considering buying stakes in Russian energy and natural resources companies (e.g., Gazprom and Rusal).<20> In addition, China decided to double the trading margin with the Ruble after the Russian currency crashed.<21> Some of the actions by the “DragonBear” following Western sanctions against Russia indicate carefully planned steps in anticipation of them. For example, Russia's state-owned Sberbank revealed plans to replace VISA and MasterCard with a new "MIR" card system in cooperation with China's UnionPay immediately after VISA and MasterCard<22> announced that they would suspend operations in the country.<23> China supported Russia diplomatically as well. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi spoke of “ever-lasting friendship” with Russia and stressed that the two countries would help bring “peace and stability” to the world.<24> At the same time, China’s Foreign Ministry opposed any moves by the US “that add fuel to flames”<25> and pledged that Beijing would retaliate with a "serious response" if the US would impose sanctions on China over Ukraine. China also stressed that the moves by US–led NATO had pushed the tensions between Russia and Ukraine to a breaking point. China further stated that the US criticised China’s position on Ukraine to seek space for the plot of simultaneously suppressing China and Russia with a view to maintaining its hegemony.<26> Furthermore, Beijing’s official statements showed unequivocal support to Russia, claiming that China will continue to cooperate with Moscow on trade and will not impose sanctions as the West did. Finally, reports of a possible request by Russia for military assistance from China caught the international community by surprise. The U.S. also warned China of serious consequences if it helped Russia evade U.S. sanctions.<27> Given its significant export shares of various commodities, Russia's plans may also include an intention to wage a commodity war against the West. The country has already announced that grain exports to members of the Eurasian Economic Union will be banned until August 31.<28> With skyrocketing food and energy prices and the FAO Food Price Index reaching Arab Spring levels in December last year<29>, limited exports of grain, fertilizers or other important commodities from Russia would contribute to the further surge of these prices. This could lead to a similar risk scenario of political protests due to socio-economic pressures and escalation of violence in the streets with the ultimate outcome of coups or regime changes in some countries in Africa and Asia similar to the Arab Spring in 2011.<30> Such a scenario could trigger a significant migration movement from these countries toward Europe, where the asylum system is already under pressure due to the Belarus migration crisis in 2021<31> and the Ukraine war.<32> At the same time, China has allowed imports of wheat from all regions of Russia, since it signed an agreement on February 4 that went into effect the day Russia reinvaded Ukraine. This helps Beijing secure its food supply at a time when global food prices are already near 10-year highs.<33>

What next?

Russia is emerging as a major free rider in the global power competition between two systemic rivals – America and China. Moscow does not shy away from using hard power to gain more bargaining leverage or expand its projection in geographic areas of primary interest. Russia's unrealistic demands on the US and NATO regarding the security architecture in Europe and its subsequent war in Ukraine show that Moscow is preparing for the "long game," i.e., the new systemic competition. The Russian president is counting on the United States to avoid direct military involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war because of the upcoming midterm elections in November as well as dwindling US geopolitical interests in the Old Continent. With the show of force in Ukraine, Russia wants to demonstrate its unique geopolitical weight as an indispensable player, without which neither of the two rivals—America and China—could win the competition against each other in the future. The Russian president also sees this as a significant opportunity to test US willingness to engage in bilateral talks with Moscow and to review America's red lines for future concessions to Russia. If Washington wants Russia to break away from China's sphere of influence in the long term, the US now knows that Moscow’s terms for this are the freedom to create its own, much larger sphere of influence in Europe, and to dictate the future of the European security architecture. For the US, a modus vivendi between China and Russia and, thus, a two-front scenario against Washington, would be extraordinarily threatening in the future. Indeed, the most important common denominator of the “DragonBear” will remain the goal of counterbalancing the US in all relevant areas of international politics. In the long run, the US can be expected to gradually withdraw from Europe to devote itself to the Indo-Pacific region, especially because of the rise of China in East Asia. Russia could also gain significant access to the Indo-Pacific region through several geopolitical corridors.<34> Currently, Moscow is expanding its military presence in Africa and plans to establish military bases in several African countries, including Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan.<35> In this way, Russia could gain maritime access to the Indian Ocean and, in the long term, expand its power projection in the Indo-Pacific region together with China and India. Moreover, despite the deepening of relations between Moscow and Beijing, India remains a strategic and traditionally reliable partner of Russia. At the diplomatic level, Russia supports China's stance in the Indo-Pacific region and openly opposes geopolitical blocs such as the US-British-Australian Security and Defense Pact (AUKUS)<36> and QUAD<37> (US, India, Australia, and Japan), which was also reflected in the joint statement with China. Moscow is also open to India's proposal for a more active role for Russia in the Indo-Pacific region. New Delhi and Moscow share a geoeconomic interest in creating an alternative to China's terrestrial Silk Road connectivity in South and Central Asia, which is why they are promoting the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC)<38> as a multimodal transit route linking India with Europe, Central Asia, and Russia. Although Russia does not currently play a key role in the competition among major powers in the Indo-Pacific region, the country could become a major player in the future in the most contested geographic space.


In the great power competition between Beijing and Washington, Russia is playing the wild card. Following the motto, “not always with each other, but never against each other”, Beijing and Moscow have found a winning formula in their bilateral relations. The two-front diplomatic scenario, in which Russia overtly supports China's position on Taiwan and China overtly supports Russia's position on Ukraine, creates a new level of confrontation between the “DragonBear” and the United States. Accordingly, what China defines as "Russia's strategic space" with respect to Ukraine, Russia defines as "China's strategic space" with respect to Taiwan and the South China Sea. The majority of geopolitical experts still see Russia and China as separate threats, but systemic coordination between Beijing and Moscow increasingly represents a complex "threat multiplier." Clearly, Russian President Putin is trying to capitalise on the current geopolitical competition with the United States. He currently pursues a three-dimensional approach: 1) a war against Ukraine, which threatens the country’s very existence as a sovereign state, and Russia’s new geopolitical project of a Union state with Belarus and Ukraine; 2) against the European Union (EU), which, despite the most severe sanctions against Moscow, is not a real military counterweight to Russia's actions in Ukraine and is thus rendered geopolitically irrelevant; and finally, 3) against China and the United States, in that Moscow is significantly raising the price of Russia's future participation in the systemic rivalry between China and the United States. The extent to which this relationship will increasingly shape the global system will depend on whether China continues its economic rise and successfully helps Russia avoid a default like the one in 2014. It is in the interest of both countries to give the impression to the outside world of a stable and resilient relationship against the West. However, there are currently no clear signals of a defence alliance between the two powers. The geopolitical rapprochement appears to be more tactical than strategic. Even maintaining the status quo would probably be acceptable to both states as long as the rise of China does not pose a direct threat to Russia's strategic interests in its own geographic "sphere of influence." Neither the United States nor China wants a scenario in which Russia becomes part of the adversarial geopolitical bloc. From the Chinese perspective, an ad hoc partnership between Russia and the United States would be the worst-case scenario. Conversely, Russia will never endorse Chinese domination in the sense of a "Pax Sinica" in Eurasia and adjacent areas in the "near abroad" (Black Sea region, Eastern Mediterranean, South Caucasus, and Eastern Europe). Given the critical uncertainties and unpredictable course of Russia's war against Ukraine, Russian President Putin may turn the country into a global mercenary for China's geoeconomic interests due to increasing dependencies on the "DragonBear." Russia's political, economic, and financial survival will depend on China amid the country's worst isolation by the West. Indeed, Vladimir Putin factored in the severe sanctions before launching the full-scale reinvasion. Currently, he has more options to diversify trade and economic ties because of the bifurcation of the global system and deepening relations with China, than he did in 2014. Even as a junior partner to the "DragonBear," Russia could completely reshape the European security architecture while diverting the West's attention from China's rise in the Indo-Pacific region if it succeeds in Ukraine. However, the West's biggest miscalculation in the aftermath of Russia’s war was not China's comprehensive actions to support Russia, but India's stance towards Moscow. Evidently, India is pursuing its own geopolitical and geoeconomic interests amidst the biggest recalibration of the world order since 1945. Undeniably, the US needs India when confronted with the "DragonBear" more than India needs the US when confronted with China in the Indo-Pacific.<39> Against this background, Moscow will increasingly rely on international partners by expanding its relations with Asian, African, and Latin-American countries, while India will be Russia's next most significant partner besides the "DragonBear." Russia will, however, not focus on managing its complex relations with China and India in the Indo-Pacific, until Moscow has addressed its own security challenges in Europe.
<1> Luke Harding and Emma Graham-Harrison, “Ukraine fighting to stop ‘a new iron curtain’ after Russian invasion,The Guardian, February 24, 2022. <2> Fred Dews, comment on “NATO Secretary General: Russia’s Annexation of Crimea Is Illegal and Illegitimate,” Brookings Blog, comment posted March 19, 2014. <3>Ukraine and pro-Russia rebels sign ceasefire deal,BBC, September 5, 2014. <4> Velina Tchakarova, “The Dragonbear: An Axis of Convenience or a New Mode of Shaping the Global System? IRMO Brief, May 2020, The Institute for the Development of International Relations. <5> Becky Sullivan, “Why Belarus is so involved in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,NPR, March 11, 2022. <6> Tim Purcell, “Why Does This Map Matter?Lykeion, February 10, 2022. <7> Presidential Executive Office, Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development, 2022. <8> Franz-Stefan Gady, “US Sanctions China Over Purchase of S-400 Air Defense Systems, Su-35 Fighter Jets From Russia,The Diplomat, September 21, 2018. <9> Dmitry Stefanovich, “Russia to Help China Develop an Early Warning System,The Diplomat, October 25, 2019. <10> William J. Broad, “How Space Became the Next ‘Great Power’ Contest Between the U.S. and China,The New York Times, May 6, 2021. <11> Velina Tchakarova, “India and China: Geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific Decade- Part 1,9 Dash Line, March 8, 2021. <12> Shaun Walker, “Kazakhstan: Russia-led military bloc to start withdrawing troops, says president,The Guardian, January 11, 2022. <13> Velina Tchakarova and Alica Kizekova, “What the Kazakhstan crisis tells us about international relations,Central European Institute of Asian Studies, January 20, 2022. <14> Velina Tchakarova, “Will China Get Embroiled in the Graveyard of Empires?9 Dash Line, July 29, 2021. <15> Edward Wong and Julian E. Barnes, “China Asked Russia to Delay Ukraine War Until After Olympics, U.S. Officials Say,The New York Times, March 2, 2022. <16> Presidential Executive Office, Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development, 2022. <17> Lingling Wei, “China Declared its Russia Friendship Had ‘No Limits.’ It’s Having Second Thoughts, The Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2022. <18> David Brunnstrom and Michael Martina, “China unsettled by Ukraine, but don’t underestimate Xi’s Taiwan resolve – CIA head,Reuters, March 8, 2022. <19> Laura He, “China lifts restrictions on Russian wheat imports,CNN, February 25, 2022. <20>China Considers Buying Stakes in Russian Energy, Commodity Firms,Bloomberg, March 8, 2022. <21> Hudson Lockett, “China to double trading band with rouble after Russian currency’s plunge,Financial Times, March 10, 2022. <22>Visa and Mastercard suspend Russian operations,BBC, March 6, 2022. <23>Russian banks may issue cards with China’s UnionPay as Visa, Mastercard cut links,Reuters, March 7, 2022. <24>State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi Meets the Press,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 7, 2022. <25>China supports Russia-Ukraine direct talks, opposes any moves that add fuel to flames, Wang Yi says in phone talks with Blinken,The Global Times, March 5, 2022. <26>U.S. spreading disinformation about China on Ukraine for own benefit: spokesperson,Xinhua, March 9, 2022. <27> Richard Pérez-Peña and David E. Sanger, “The U.S. warns China not to give Russia military or economic aid.” The New York Times, March 14, 2022. <28>Russia to impose temporary ban on exports of grain to EAEU,24KG, March 11, 2022. <29>World Food Situation: FAO Food Price Index,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. <30> Marco Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, Karla Z. Bertrand and Yaneer Bar-Yam, “UPDATE February 2012 — The food crises: Predictive validation of a quantitative model of food prices including speculators and ethanol conversion,” March 6, 2012. <31> European Council. <32> Peter Beaumont, “Ukraine has fastest-growing refugee crisis since second world war, says UN,The Guardian, March 6, 2022. <33> He “China lifts restrictions on Russian wheat imports” <34> Natasha Kuhrt, “2022: Russia the Other Pacific Power,9 Dash Line, January 14, 2022. <35> Anadolu Agency, “Russia to build military bases in 6 African countries: Report,Daily Sabah, August 4, 2020. <36> Niklas SwanströmJagannath P. PandaAnna WieslanderMats EngmanLars VargöMahima DuggalMarc LanteigneJames RogersStephen R. NagyAntoine BondazZsuzsa Anna FerenczyVelina TchakarovaKapil Patil and Hina Pandey, “AUKUS: Resetting European Thinking on Indo-Pacific?,Special Paper, October 2021, Institute for Security & Development Policy. <37> Velina Tchakarova, “The QUAD Summit amid the Bifurcation of the Global System,Medium, September 25, 2021. <38> Marjorie Van Leijen, “Missing link on the Russia-India corridor: will it ever be made?”, July 6, 2021. <39> Tchakarova, “India and China: Geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific Decade- Part 1”
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Velina Tchakarova

Velina Tchakarova

With over two decades of professional experience and academic background in security and defense Velina Tchakarova is an expert in the field of geopolitics. Velina ...

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